STEYNING – A Sussex Town

If life in Brighton becomes too hectic, then a few days in Steyning are guaranteed to put things back in perspective.   Or so I found this week when the fine weather brought more people to Brighton than I’d anticipated and my ‘quiet’ time became distinctly unquiet, although I did enjoy some fine walks along Brighton beach and along Palace Pier.

One of the prettiest Sussex towns, the Saxon town of Steyning (its history dates back to the 8th century) has more or less everything – a meandering high street, historic buildings, good shops (including an Independent Bookshop) and magnificent countryside all around, the South Downs to be precise.

Steyning had been a trading powerhouse in the early middle ages, acting as a river port for the downland wool trade but the silting up of the River Adur left it up the creek, so to speak.  The Black Death hit the village hard and the competition from other ports added to its economic woes, but the loss to the medieval folk of Steyning is our gain today.

The bypass has also been of benefit in this respect because, unlike many other small towns and villages in Sussex, the High Street has been spared the constant heavy traffic that makes a toll on the roads and creates noise and pollution.

Steyning is pretty well preserved, with many Tudor style half-timbered houses alongside some smart Georgian townhouses.

The preponderance of wood is especially noticeable, from the many old wooden doors to wooden fencing dividing the pavement from the road.

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There is only one high-street grocery chain in the town and the many independent retailers offer an eclectic range of foodstuffs ranging from organic to exotic: the range of coffee shops/restaurants is truly amazing, many seeming to have a bakery shop as an add-on.   Outstanding is the Independent Booksellers in which we whiled away a couple of hours, emerging later with bags full of wonderful books, some bought as Christmas presents.  It was the sort of shop where one comes across books one just knows will suit someone, the sort one doesn’t find in the big bookstores anymore.   As a consequence of the mix of old-fashioned and modern small shops, shopping in Steyning is easy paced and very enjoyable.

Below are a few of the doorways that took my camera’s eye.

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There is an Arts Festival every year, a Museum in Church Street, and some very interesting carvings in St Andrew’s Norman church.  A few miles up the road is the attractive village of Bramber with its ruined castle and Norman church and the South Downs Way passes just to the south of Steyning and climbs through some magnificent countryside around the Steyning Bowl.

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Castelmola, Sicily – Medieval Village

From the natural terrace built around the ruins of a Norman castle, you have a spectacular view of the Ionian coast, majestic Etna, Taormina, the Bay of Giardini-Naxos, the straits of Messina, and the Calabrian coast:  on a clear day you can even see way beyond Catania, as far as Syracuse.  You are nearly 2,000 feet above sea level, you are in Castelmola in Sicily.

Castelmoro from below

Part of the attraction of Castelmola is gazing up at it from Taormina (as in the featured photo taken from the main square in Taormina,  and above from another part of the town) and wondering how on earth you can get up there.  It looks like the top of the world, this tiny village perched on a craggy hilltop above Taormina.  Not so long ago the village was inaccessible, visited only by a few intrepid travellers who hiked up the seriously uphill mountain paths for about 90 minutes, or drove up the curving, almost perpendicular road, to the top.  Nowadays a bus makes the 15-minute journey every hour from Taormina and things are changing, although slowly.

 

The result of this remoteness is that the people of the village have kept their dialect, their customs and their lives entirely to themselves.

Casteldemoro

Founded in the 8th century BC it was first conquered by the Greeks and afterwards by Saracens and its interesting mix of customs and traditions reflect this history.  The entrance to the village is marked by an ancient arch of Greek-Roman origin, built in 900 BC, and this dominates the Piazza S. Antonino, the main square of the village.  In earlier times the entry was through a gate carved into the rock which was moved to the front of the castle in 1927.

 

This relatively modern Piazza Sant’Antonio, built in 1954, is one of the main squares of the town and attracts the local elders who like to sit on the benches in the square to watch the village activity and the arrival and departure of the buses.  From this Piazza of white and black lava stone, bordered by a white balustrade and tree-lined sidewalks, there is a panoramic view of Taormina, its town, beaches and islands.

 

From the Piazza, roads lead off to other parts of the village, every corner offering more spectacular views whether it’s over the velvety green mountains with their trails delineated as though someone had poured them in swirling patterns on the slopes or the craggy peaks of the barren side.  The street names, numbers and signs are locally crafted in stone and wrought iron, and the pastel-coloured houses range from palest primrose to sky blues and apple greens.  In fact, it is a typical Sicilian village, better preserved than most, as it has not lost all its inhabitants as have most of those in the interior of the island.

 

That said, a fair number of the inhabitants depart in the winter for the slightly warmer temperature along the coast but during the rest of the year, they man the restaurants, bars and lace and embroidery shops for which the village is famed.

One of the most famous and most eccentric attractions is the Turrisi Bar which has a bizarre display of phalluses in wood, clay and ceramic – a sign of abundance and a good omen as per the Hellenic tradition – in every size, from large stone sculptures to bathroom taps, paintings and wooden carvings.  This ancient emblem of fertility is celebrated here in flamboyant style, and among the gifts available from the shop is the locally produced almond wine in phallic-shaped bottles, referred to, of course, as the “elixir of love”.

As so often in Sicily one passes from the profane to the sacred in the blink of an eye and in just a few steps you arrive at the Cathedral which dates back to the 16th century (rebuilt in 1935), known otherwise as the Church of St. Nicholas of Bari, in the Piazza Duomo. There isn’t a lot to hold your attention here but it has a rather beautiful pulpit and a wooden statue of Mary Magdalene which, I am told, is of the school of Bagnasco.   I confess I had no knowledge of this sculptor but I found a reference to one Rosario Bagnasco who worked mainly in wood, and who was active mainly in Palermo, so I presume it is his work. Looking towards the Bell Tower Before you leave, look to the beautiful bell tower which offers a wonderful frame for a photograph of Mount Etna in the distance behind it.

CASTEL DEL MOLA

So if you find yourself with a day, or even a half day to spare when you are in Taormina, or if you want to see one of Sicily’s loveliest medieval villages, then be sure to visit Castelmola where you will find narrow streets and quiet solitude in a community of just over one thousand residents.  In fact, if you visit out of season and find your way up the mountain to Castelmola you may feel that you have the entire town to yourself.

 

 

 

Saint-Symphorien Cemetery World War 1

I read in the news that Theresa May, Prime Minister of Great Britain, is to travel to France to lay a wreath on the graves of two young British soldiers who were killed during World War 1.  One of them was the first man to die in that ‘war to end all wars’ and the other was the last man to die.   It reminded me that I had visited Saint-Symphorien cemetery where they are buried, a couple of years ago and I thought I would re-post my original piece but to my surprise either I hadn’t posted anything about that particular battlefield or I had somehow deleted it.

However, it is still in my mind now so I thought I would just put up a few photographs of the cemetery because it is so different from all the others in France, being in woodland, and having a more peaceful appearance.  It is also the only cemetery, I believe, in which both British and German soldiers are buried together.  My visit to Ypres last year was very different.   There massive cemeteries like Tyne Cot just filled one with a deep, deep sadness as the ranks upon ranks of white gravestones spreading across the fields could not but remind one of the carnage of that war.

First though, the gravestone of the young James Parr of the Middlesex Regiment who was the first man to die, on the 21st August 1914.

First British Man to die in World War 1

And the gravestone of Private George Edwin Ellison of the 5th Royal Irish Lancers who was killed on the outskirts of Mons at 9.30 a.m. just 90 minutes before the Armistice came into force.

Headstone for G.E. Ellison, last man to die in WW1

The cemetery:

German Grave in Saint-Symphorien Cemetery
A German Grave in Saint-Symphorien Cemetery, near Mons

And just to finish on, not far from here is the spot where the first shot was fired in that war.

First shot in the Great War was fired here

And the steely grey canal over which many battles were fought in this area.Le Conde Canal with Storm Clouds

Rain in Sicily

Marooned in my very nice hotel in Syracuse where it has rained now for 3 days.  And when I say rain, I mean torrential rain falling from the sky non-stop.  As most of what I’ve come here to see is outdoors, like the Roman and Greek theatres, that’s not good news, although I did manage some of the smaller sights before the deluge.  I’ve been here before so it’s not too bad for me but my travelling companion is very disappointed.

We were luckier in Taormina where, although we had heavy rain there too, we managed on the good days to do the essential sights.

To those bloggers with whom I usually keep in touch this is the reason for my silence.

To compound matters I left my ‘phone in the security section at the airport (now awaiting collection when I get back), my IPad locked me out, and as I can’t retrieve its text code on my mobile OR landline, it asked me the usual security questions like mother’s maiden name, first pet and first school: no probs.  Then it asked me when I opened my Google Account!  Can anyone remember when they opened theirs?  So I’m still locked out.

I always carry my little Kindle in my pocket for convenience and it has been my saviour.  It never asked me daft security questions and it just logged on to the hotel internet like a pro. when I remembered this morning that it also does emails.  WordPress needed my password which I couldn’t remember so it I’ve had to get another, but that’s OK, I’m online now and have read a few blogs.

I don’t think I can upload photos though, so will not be posting until I’m home again.

Meantime, here’s to the Kindle, much better value for money in my opinion, and a definite thumbs down for the IPad.  This is the second time the IPad has done this to me so I should have known better than to rely on it.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Newport, Isle of Wight, a Second Look

On the green in the middle of the town stands a memorial to the last little chimney sweep to die here, and just a few miles away a lovely old pub is the site of the last hanging to take place.  I’m in Newport, the main town on the Isle of Wight, sometimes referred to as the capital.

Valentine Grey

 

The Island is well known as a favourite holiday resort for walkers, cyclists and families with young children, but Newport itself is often dismissed as merely a shopping area.  Yet Newport was the hub of the Island’s rail network until the Beeching cuts of 1996 closed its railway along with many more on the island.  This was a cut too far as the roads can barely cope with the increased traffic that was the result of such drastic pruning.

The only remaining train line runs from the ferry terminal at Ryde to the resort town of Shanklin with stops at Sandown, Brading and Smallbrook (for the Steam Railway), and the hub of the transport network is now the bus station in Newport where routes from across the Island terminate.

A quick visit to the town and you could be forgiven for thinking it is a town of chain stores from the ubiquitous M & S to H & M and Primark, but this historic town centres on two elegant squares surrounded by Georgian and Victorian architecture, and the town’s quay from which goods from all over the world were shipped along the Medina River from the port at Cowes, is just a short walk away.

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Riverside Pub in Newport, The Bargeman’s Rest

Swans float serenely on the river ignoring the canoes and kayaks, the sailing boats and the odd small yacht or two that are on the water, and on the terrace of the Quay Arts Centre people relax with coffee and cakes, tea and crumpets or lunch.  Inside the Arts Centre is a constantly changing art exhibition, dance classes, open mic occasions and an upmarket shop selling exquisitely crafted goods in silk, silver, ceramic, pottery and paper.

There was an extensive Roman settlement on the island and there remain two Roman villas, one of which is open to the public and whose remains provide a fascinating insight into country life in 3rd century Britain.  Discovered in 1926 when foundations were being dug for a garage, subsequent excavations revealed the remains of a late Roman farmhouse built around 280 AD with a superb bath suite, underfloor heating and remnants of mosaic floors.  You can peep into a Roman kitchen and see a slave preparing a Roman feast and there is a hands-on activity room where you can make a mosaic, repair a broken pot or weave a blanket.  Outside, the plants Romans would have used are grown in the beautiful herb garden.

CC David Hill
Carisbrooke Castle – Copyright David Hill (Flickr)

Newport is probably more famous for the nearby castle of Carisbrooke in the village of the same name, but although there have been fortifications on the Carisbrooke site since Roman times, what one sees today dates largely from the 12th to the 15th century.

Carisbrooke Castle Copyright David Hill (Flickr)
Carisbrook Castle – Copyright David Hill (Flickr)

Carisbrooke Castle is most famous as the place where Charles I was held prior to his removal to London and his execution by Oliver Cromwell’s Parliamentarians. The castle is said to be haunted by the King’s young daughter, Princess Elizabeth, who died during her incarceration in the Castle.

The donkeys of Carisbrook Castle are very popular with children of all ages.  In previous centuries, water for the castle’s occupants was drawn from the 150 foot deep well by two donkeys powering a draw-wheel, walking approximately 270 metres to raise one bucket of water.  When the castle lost its defensive role this practice stopped.

When the castle was restored in the 19th century, the equipment was renewed and the donkeys have been raising the water for the benefit of watching visitors ever since then. English Heritage is keen to say that the donkeys enjoy the exercise and are never over-worked.

Nearby Parkhurst Forest is home to two prisons which together make up the largest prison in the UK: it was once among the few top-security prisons in the United Kingdom. Their names, Parkhurst and Albany, were once synonymous with the major criminals who were housed there, it being presumed that any escapee would have a problem getting off the Island (as indeed it proved on the few occasions when a breakout occurred).

Crowds enjoy the music festival ©VisitIsleofWight.com

The famous Pop Festival shows no signs of losing popularity despite competition from other towns and cities across the country.  Seaclose Park on the east bank of the River Medina has been the location for the revived Isle of Wight Music Festival since 2002 and it is one of the key events in Newport’s events calendar!

So if Newport, Isle of Wight is on your itinerary, please wander around its streets and alleyways, look at the façades of the houses and try and guess in what century it was erected.  Find the row of old Alms Houses and if time permits, take a walk along the banks of the Medina River and try and visualise the days when sailing ships sailed up here from Cowes carrying a cargo of rice from Carolina.  And when it comes to time to eat, whether your taste runs to Mac & Cheese, Burgers, or Fine Dining, Newport can supply you with the best, with the Golden Arches for fast food and Hewitts and Michelin-starred Thompsons for truly superb food.

The Guildhall, Newport.jpg ©VisitIsleofWight.com

 

Whitehall Palace – Banqueting Rooms

Travels with My Camera

To London last week with the British Guild of Travel Writers for our Annual Summer Outing which this year included a visit to the Banqueting House in Whitehall, a tour on a Big London Bus and a Cruise on the River Thames with City Cruises, the boat that allows you to get off at any stop along the route.  The open-top bus tour and the river cruise took place in blazing sunshine and although London sights are familiar, the landmarks and historic sites never fail to thrill.

London Bridge

The Banqueting House is the last surviving part of the Palace of Whitehall*.   It was once the greatest palace of its time in Europe, almost totally destroyed by fire in 1698, but I knew nothing of its history until this visit.

The Great Hall © Historic Royal Palaces/Peter Li
A view of the great hall and its ceiling decorated with paintings by Sir Peter Paul Rubens…

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Whitehall Palace – Banqueting Rooms

Re-blogged because I have now accessed some images from Historic Royal Palaces which help flesh out the text.

To London last week with the British Guild of Travel Writers for our Annual Summer Outing which this year included a visit to the Banqueting House in Whitehall, a tour on a Big London Bus and a Cruise on the River Thames with City Cruises, the boat that allows you to get off at any stop along the route.  The open-top bus tour and the river cruise took place in blazing sunshine and although London sights are familiar, the landmarks and historic sites never fail to thrill.

London Bridge

The Banqueting House is the last surviving part of the Palace of Whitehall*.   It was once the greatest palace of its time in Europe, almost totally destroyed by fire in 1698, but I knew nothing of its history until this visit.

The Great Hall
© Historic Royal Palaces/Peter Li
A view of the great hall and its ceiling decorated with paintings by Sir Peter Paul Rubens at the Banqueting House. The ceiling canvases were commissioned by James I’s son, Charles I, in 1629-30 to celebrate his father’s life and wise government. They represent the only scheme painted by Rubens to remain in its original position

The Banqueting House was created for King James I in 1622 by architect Inigo Jones.  Inspired by the classical architecture of ancient Rome it was revolutionary at that time, standing it is said, head and shoulders above the ragbag of buildings that composed Whitehall Palace.  At the time of which we are speaking, a banquet was composed of little snacks and desserts, eaten after the main course when diners were waiting for the entertainment to begin, and was consumed in a separate little house or room, highly decorated and situated a short walk away from the main dining hall in order to aid digestion.  The Banqueting House of Whitehall Palace was the biggest and grandest of them all.

The Great Hall
© Historic Royal Palaces/Peter Li
A view of the ceiling of the Great Hall.  The canvases were commissioned by James I’s son, Charles I, in 1629-30 to celebrate his father’s life and wise government. They represent the only scheme painted by Rubens to remain in its original position

It was during the reign of King Charles l that the magnificent ceiling paintings by Sir Peter Paul Rubens (which today can be viewed from comfortable leather cushions laid on the floor) were installed.  Under these ceilings over 400 years ago, royalty and courtiers, ambassadors and aristocrats took part in some of the most exuberant and decadent masques every performed; today it is more likely to be celebrities and fashionistas who parade beneath the sumptuous ceilings as The Banqueting House has proved a popular ‘Events’ venue.

The Great Hall
© Historic Royal Palaces/Peter Li
A view of the great throne in Banqueting House and its ceiling decorated with paintings by Sir Peter Paul Rubens.
The Great Hall
© Historic Royal Palaces/Peter Li.                                                                                                                   A view of the great hall and its ceiling decorated with paintings by Sir Peter Paul Rubens at the Banqueting House. The Banqueting House is the only remaining complete building of Whitehall Palace, which served as the sovereign’s principal residence from 1530 until 1698 when it was destroyed by fire. Designed by renowned architect Inigo Jones for King James I and completed in 1622.  It later became the scene of King Charles I’s execution which took place on 30 January 1649

* Whitehall Place was for many years the property of the powerful Archbishops of York, who needed to be close to the monarch.  The first was built in 1241 and was originally known as York Place, passing through time to Cardinal Wolsey who extended it greatly.  As we know, he was deprived of his properties by Henry VIII who took it over in 1530 when it became Whitehall Palace.  Two great fires saw the destruction of Whitehall Palace, the first in 1691 and the second in 1698 when it was almost totally destroyed.

Opening times: Monday to Sunday 10:00 – 17:00 (last admission 16:00).                Admission:  Adults £5. 50   Concessions £4. 60:    Children 5-15  £0

What follows are images of London taken from the top of the Big Red Bus.

The following are pictures taken from City Cruises boat which carried us from Westminster Pier down to the Tower of London and beyond, passing some very innovative architecture whose positioning evoked some heated argument amongst us, as well as the always sombre Traitors’ Gate leading into the Tower and almost certain death.

 

Dr Samual Johnson said, “…..when a man is tired of London, he is tired of life; for there is in London all that life can afford.”   Even after the long gap in time, I agree with him, every word.

 

A Short Story About a Bear

Delving into my photo box today I chanced upon these pictures and as there is a tale to tell about them, I give it to you here.

Once upon a time in Thailand, there was a baby bear who, for a short time, lived near a friend of mine with a couple who had been looking after it since it was found wandering near a village.   They were kind to the bear but as it grew older it became unmanageable and they were at a loss to know what to do with it.

In Western Europe we can approach a zoo or an animal theme park to ask for help but there was no such thing in Thailand at that time (I’m thinking it was around the 1970’s because it was about then that I first started to visit there).  So my friend adopted the bear and looked after it as well as she could on her large acreage but eventually, she had to find another home for it.

So the bear went to live in a Temple.

Monks in Thailand look after any animal that is no longer wanted (Buddhism holds all life sacred), and the bear, although probably larger than anything they had taken in before, found a home with them.  He had to be kept chained up for most of the time, but he was taken out for walks every day and didn’t want for company.  A sad life we may think, but there was no alternative at that time, and he was treated kindly.

Bear A
The Monk tells the Bear his Friend has Arrived

What the bear looked forward to were the visits of my friend once or twice a week when her work permitted.  She always arrived with his favourite food, condensed milk, which she fed to him out of the tin – he could scoff 3 tins of the stuff in one visit – and some apples.

 

I accompanied her a few times but I never had the nerve to approach too closely, she had a special bond with the animal but I felt our acquaintanceship didn’t go back far enough for him to embrace me with the gentleness he did her.  OK, I was a coward.

Bear E
Now Please may I have Some Water?

The animal lived for over 30 years and was a placid old bear right to the end.  The monks were very fond of him and he had a good rapport with some regular visitors, and he always showed affection towards her when she went to see him.

Bear C
One Last Sip Before You Go.

I suppose she was the nearest thing he had to a parent.

Animals in captivity are not something we like to think about, but I felt that this bear had a good life (just look at that glossy coat) and he was treated with dignity and respect because the monks had him in their care.  There were alternatives but you can guess how awful they were.   So, a Happy Bear Story, I hope.

The End ….

 

Wish You Were Here

Today I got a postcard from abroad!   So what? you may think.

So absolutely fantastic that I did an impromptu jig in the hallway when I picked it up before reverently placing it in a prominent position so that I could look at it and admire it for a few more days.

Ronda

Do you remember how exciting it was to receive a postcard in the days when people sent you postcards?  Those mountain views, seascapes, hotels with the X placed just where the sender’s room was?  The whiff of abroad that unsettled you as you sweltered in a stuffy office or maybe dreamed in your kitchen or garage as the evenings grew shorter and the winter light faded?  You remember it now?

Japan
Mount Fuji, Japan

Next time you’re away from home, put away your smartphone, pack up the tablet, venture out and into the touristy gift shops and buy some postcards to send to your friends  Postcards are physical things, things you hold, read and re-read, pass along to friends to read; they give rise to conversations “So-and-so is in Venice this week.  I’ve had a card”.  “Oh, does (s)he like it?” and so on.  A whole conversation opens up in which you discuss former holidays, your bucket-list of places to see, the food you ate, the weather (always good) and how the children loved it.  You don’t need to look down at your phone to check anything, it’s on the card, as is the view, not a blurred selfie taken and then hastily dispatched to all and sundry.

Russia
Russia

You can’t store the postcard in your Inbox only to have it deleted after the set time (in my case 30 days), you can’t Tweet it, upload it to Facebook, Instagram it or save it to your computer. But you can be cheered by it every time you look at it and think that someone has thought about you enough to go out and buy a card, then a stamp, then find a Post Office in which to post it. I know sometimes the shop will sell stamps and take them for posting, but not always.

CUBA
Cuba

So, what sort of Postcard are you going to send?  One of those innuendo-laden Donald McGill cards that used to make everyone laugh, even the Vicar on a good day? Or a view of the sea/sand/mountains?  A donkey, Flamenco dancer, famous painting, or two fluffy kittens in a basket?  You have to think of the right card for the right person, and as you do, you’ll realise the pleasure it is going to give to whoever receives it, whether it be an aged aunt or a nine-year-old nephew.

Italy
Rome, Italy

Writing and sending postcards means time away from interfacing on Facebook, emailing the office, or poring over selfies of friends out on the town, but isn’t it a great excuse to ditch the technology for an hour or two?

Yorkshire
Haworth, Yorkshire

I don’t mind what you send me.  I just love that lift I get when I receive one, to know I’ve been remembered, and that you have spent time buying, writing and posting me a Wish you Were Here thought.

Beach

Wish You Were Here!